I thought this was going to be quick and simple. But it wasn’t. Of course.
Here’s the deal: As I was fingering through my files a few weeks ago, looking for fresh topics, I came across one hanging folder tabbed “Junior Pics.” It also had a second tab marked “Barris, Ala Kart, Dream Truck, etc.” I had a vague idea of what was in it. Some time back I was doing an article on something Junior worked on–possibly Steve Scott’s “Uncertain T”–and I thought Junior had some photos of it. When I asked, he said “Sure,” and dug out a thick file or envelope full of photos, mostly 8 x 10 prints, both color and black and white. Digging through them to find the photos I needed, I very quickly realized that these were mostly unseen pictures not only documenting the work from Barris’s shop and Junior’s House of Color, but also an overview, plus behind-the-scenes look, at the classic custom era of the mid-’50s through the early ’60s. Being an avid collector and preserver of such photos, I of course asked Junior if I could just borrow the whole folder so I could take it home and copy everything with my own cameras. He said “Fine.”
So I did, and now I thought to myself “What a great ready-made column.” I had already cherry-picked some of the images for my last two “Gallery” books, and I knew there was good stuff in there. Trouble was–yep–once again it was too much good stuff. There were 209 photos in my file, color and black-and-white, and these were just the better ones I decided to copy from Junior’s stash. Don’t get me wrong. This is a good kind of problem, like we should all have. It just means it’s not a simple slam dunk for this column. It’ll take some work. But I think you’ll like it.
Let me start with this photo because (a) I love it, (b) it’s the only one I took myself, and (c) it’s one of the few about Junior. The occasion of course was when Junior volunteered to paint the nearly restored Hirohata Merc for Jim McNiel to get it to a big custom car exhibit at the Oakland Museum. The car was to the point of rub-out, and I was doing a story on it for The Rodder’s Journal, so Junior asked Frank Sonzogni (who actually worked on the car originally) to come by for an interview. Somehow George Barris heard I was doing this, and very unexpectedly showed up. While I was doing the interview, master detailer Bill Larzelier was out in the booth buffing the car. So when I was done with the tape recorder, I got out my cameras and set up this photo. That’s George in front holding one of his crests, Junior behind him with a spray gun, Sonzogni with metal file and hammer, Jim McNiel with the pink slip, and Larzelier with his buffer. The sad part of this pic is that three of them are now gone.
Obviously some of the photos in the file are of Junior and his well-known Shoebox Ford, but only a few, and this column is mostly about all the other stuff in it. So I’ll give just a glimpse of Junior and his car now, to start. Young Hershel Conway was 12 or 13 when his older brother, Herb, bought this ’50 Ford already partly customized with an arched rear frame and other minor mods. The two worked on it together, nosing and decking it with lead, building a custom grille and so on. Hersh acquired the car, in primer, when he turned 16. So he took it by Barris’ shop on Atlantic in Lynwood, to discuss a paint job. He couldn’t afford much. So he worked a deal with George for an enamel spray job if Hersh helped sand and prep it. This is how it turned out (above), with a touch of Von Dutch striping, painted “Sam Bronze.” And George said he was so impressed with this kid’s work ethic, he offered him a job at age 16 in 1955, as a sand and prep helper. And since he was the youngest in the shop, George named him Junior.
Junior recently told me that a bad front-end crash about a year later led to this full rebuild, with small fins, custom taillights, hooded headlights, rounded hood and tube grille. The paint this time was gold and bronze lacquer, sprayed by George. For some reason the back bumper’s off. And check that ’32 roadster hulk.
George probably took the high-angle staged photo with the fake phone (he took tons of photos and loved gimmicky stuff…and publicity). I love the outdoor car show pic because it shows the custom upholstery, including the trunk and stuff they had to clean out of it. Also note the indents in the door jamb painted gold and pinstriped. Sam taught Junior how to prep perfectly, George taught him how to paint, and detailing was probably Junior’s own proclivity.
I was surprised to find this photo of Andy Southard, Jr.’s excellent ’58 Impala parked next to Jr.’s Ford. Andy became a prolific freelance photographer and member of the Bay Area Roadsters with several well-known rods, but he started in New York, where he learned to pinstripe and had this tasty mild custom built by Herb Gary. This might have been his first trip to California, and the obligatory visit to Barris’ shop.
I think most of these photos have not been seen before, but this column isn’t about Junior so much as about other unseen pics from his file. All I’ll say here is that he worked at Barris’s from ’55 until ’61, learning how to paint candies, pearls, and ‘flakes, then opened his House of Color, where he said he sometimes painted 100 candy jobs in a year. But if you want to know more about Junior and his long, continuing career, I would refer you to an article I did on him in the Nov. ’06 Hot Rod, or an interview by Jerry Weesner in Street Rodder, April ’88.
This is the sort of thing I’m talking about. Given some scribbled notes, I think this very black, very low ’54 Mercury hardtop belonged to Junior’s brother Herb. I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen this before. It’s at a show at the Long Beach Veterans’ Stadium (where they hold swap meets today). And he’s one cool cat with his white Peggers, dark shades, and blue suede shoes, showing you just how low his car is. But what’s more impressive than its stance (remember, this is before hydraulics or air bags) is the impeccable fit and finish of the black lacquer paint job, which you can tell from the reflections in the rear quarter fender shot. This, I assume, is a Junior paint job. And, like most I’ll show here, I have no idea who took the photos.
Barris’s own Kopper Kart isn’t often seen from the rear. The copper plating was sort of gimmicky, and it had a TV as well as a phony phone. It also had a stock six engine. But George drove it as much as showed it. I’ve seen photos of it on the highway with cargo strapped on top of the bed.
George photographed Buddy Alcorn’s “Eggplant” ’50 Merc at one of his favorite locations, the Lynwood(?) City Hall. Done in 1955, it was the last of the famous ’50s Barris Mercs. Then he traded it to Dick Jackson for a very mildly customized, but new, ’57 Ford.
Somehow Sam Barris had time (and energy) to build several excellent customs for himself, but sold them quickly to earn extra income. You might have seen this photo of his silver and blue ’52 Ford convertible built for his growing family (wife Joyce pushing the cart, kids in the back seat). It’s called the Practical Custom or Safety Custom, mainly because it had a padded dash and seat belts.
This was Sam’s last effort (and the only color photo I have of the full car), called “El Capitola” because he built it (from a ’57 Chevy) for customer Dan Retcher after he left the Barris shop to move home near Sacramento (CA’s capital) to work as an insurance adjuster. He did bring the car back to Barris’s to have Junior paint it white pearl and fuschia candy. It won the overall custom award at Oakland in 1960.
And speaking of 1960 Oakland show, we all love these high overall shots taken from the upstairs office at the old Coliseum, so we can search for famous cars. Roth’s Outlaw is obvious, as is an early version of Aguirre’s X-Sonic. I also spot Wilhelm’s Mark Mist, next to some familiar T-Birds and Vettes. And look at all those customs along the left, including several chopped Mercs. Soon they’d be gone.
And speaking of Oakland, the NorCal East Bay is where Joe Bailon plied his custom trade. And Junior gives him credit for inventing and more importantly perfecting candy apple paints and spraying them in luscious, deep, even coats. This is the only color photo I have of Bailon’s “Mystery Ford” in its original colors, a sort of candy rust red over gold. It’s now in the Oakland Museum restored, for some reason, in candy red over silver.
I was not familiar with this slick ’50 Chevy mild custom hardtop belonging to Damon Richey of the Renegades club. I like the frenched ’51 Buick taillights. I don’t know if Junior painted it; he simply notes it’s maroon and silver.
I think this is just one cool photo. And it’s a good closer for the traditional custom era, around 1962. The mild custom ’57 Chevy with the hood scoops and ’57 Buick grille was painted candy blue by Junior for Bill Hines’ nephew, known as Teddy Z from Detroit. The candy red ’58 next to it isn’t really customized at all. More in a second.
Junior calls the color he painted on Danny D’Angelo’s ’58 Impala Candy Persimmon. Very much like Mox Miller’s blue-panel-painted Impala from the same era, it retains all its stock body and factory trim. Besides lowering and a set of Buick Skylark wire wheels, the only external modification is Junior’s perfect body blocking and candy paint. However, like Mox, Danny liberally chromed most everything in the engine compartment, and added custom (black) upholstery. Given the black interior and narrow whitewalls, I was going to guess 1962, but the black California plate came out in ’63. This thing is strictly a show car, not a street cruiser. I’ve never seen it before, in person or in a magazine. How about you?
I think I can safely say that Steve Scott’s “Uncertain T” is the most famous of all wacky rods, as well as one of the most enduring of unsolved mysteries. But it’s fact that he had it painted candy red by Cushenberry, only to get beaten by the Lee & Wells bubble-top Lincoln Mark II painted Marigold Metalflake by Junior at its first big car show for the prestigious Best Paint award. Consequently Steve hauled it over to House of Color to have it redone with a Junior job in Nutmeg Metalflake, as you see here in a pose I doubt you’ve seen before.
Speaking of Wacky rods, bubble tops, and Lee & Wells, Gary Lee, who Junior simply said was a “radio guy” from Chicago, commissioned this two-seat, semi-futuristic dragster obviously built to show, not race. I don’t know (or care actually) much about it other than Dick Dean handformed the all-metal body, and then Junior sprayed the color in pearl and candy blues.
I’m sure you know that this ’61 Corvette with the Moon tank, polished Americans in hacked-out wheelwells, parachute, and a candy red Junior paint job was Big John Mazmanian’s first highly successful blown gas drag car (though it ran in Modified Sports class). Surprisingly the 4-71 blower (with 2-port Hilborn) on the S.B. Chevy appears painted red here. But what I love about this never-seen photo from Junior’s file is such a nasty-ass (yet beautiful) race car casually parked in some suburban neighborhood circular driveway.
And only a few of you will remember that when the first Stingrays came out in late ’62, Big John snapped one up, took it straight to Junior’s, had him open the wheelwells a bit, add a couple of taillights, and then the usual block, prep, and candy red paint as his very tasty street driver. Those highly polished real mag American 5-spokes were some of the first on the street.
Bill probably wished he had this photo when he was restoring the Ala Kart at Brizio’s several years ago. Actually this is just a teaser, because as you can see from the cars in the background and the four carbs in place of injectors, this is the mid-’60s at Barris’ North Hollywood shop where AMT brought the car to be repaired after Bud “Da Kat” Anderson caught it on fire and torched the front end. Next time I’ll show photos of the repainting and reconstruction process, all in Junior’s file. Also, enlarge this photo to check out the partially customized Econoline pickup parked between the new Marlin and T-Bird.
In the later ’60s and ’70s when rods and especially customs were dying out, all custom shops were scrambling for work, and in L.A. that meant Hollywood, both movies and especially corny TV. So once Barris got the Ala Kart rebuilt, he hustled to get it on TV before giving it back to AMT. I’m not sure how this fit into an afternoon rock and dance program, but here it is in L.A.’s MacArthur Park being filmed by ABC for Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is,” a sequel to his historic American Bandstand. The date on the call board is 7-22-65.
I took this photo of Thane Jensen’s chopped and much (subtly) modified ’37 Chevy when I did the article on Junior in Hot Rod in ’06. The first point here is that Junior won’t paint a car until the metal’s perfect, whether stock or custom. But he doesn’t do metalwork. He has hand-picked experts who come in to straighten, replace, or modify steel or aluminum. There’s a full bare-metal feature on this car in TRJ No. 6, showing not only body mods, but leadwork to fit and gap doors and other panels, as well as a hot 322-in. GMC six with triple dual Webers. Second, the aluminum Duesenberg behind it–one of seven–not to mention the new Porsche in front, comprise the bulk of Junior’s work today, though he has slipped in a few more candy apple or black lacquer customs and rods lately.
And finally, as the title says, this is just a sneak peek at what’s in this Junior photo file. I assume you’d like to see more in the future. To give some idea, Junior painted Chili Catallo’s Little Deuce Coupe, Andy Didia’s Dream Car, the last colors on the R&C Dream Truck, Chuck Krikorian’s 1960 AMBR winner, the Aztec, Barris’ Air Car and the ex-Chrisman “Dobie Gillis” coupe, not to mention literally hundreds more (actually thousands now) at his own House of Color. And the most amazing of all–he’s still doing it, to the same high standard of excellence as always, today.